Swiss gun-rights activists, whose logo is a muscular William Tell clutching a crossbow, are taking aim at European Union firearm reform, just as Donald Trump says armed Parisians could have stopped terror attacks in 2015.
Seven hundred years after Switzerland’s defiant hero was forced by Habsburg oppressors to shoot an apple off his son’s head, a gun-advocacy group plans to trigger a referendum to block the implementation of tighter EU restrictions on semi-automatic firearms like the AR-15 assault rifle used by Nikolas Cruz in February to kill 17 classmates at his Florida high school. Protell and its supporters in the nationalist Swiss People’s Party bridle at Brussels laying down laws they say are unnecessary in Switzerland, where gun crime is rare.
Backers of the EU proposal say that ignores concessions to Switzerland’s tradition of military service. Snubbing the EU also risks Swiss membership of Schengen, according to Pierre-Alain Fridez, councillor with the Social Democratic Party. Being ejected from Schengen -- which allows passport-free movement for more than 400 million people across 26 European countries -- would cost the Swiss economy as much as 10.7 billion francs ($10.8 billion) a year, according to official estimates.
“We’d be out of Schengen,” said Fridez. “We’d lose the freedom of movement.”
Switzerland is legally obliged to implement the directive and a failure to do so “would drive a wedge between the EU and Switzerland and could lead to sanction measures,” said Bodil Valero, a member of European Parliament who advised on the new law.
The law is aimed at preventing a repeat of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in which al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists killed 12 people using weapons that hadn’t been correctly deactivated and were then legally repurchased, said Valero.
“If one country at the heart of Europe refuses to follow the rules, it could undermine the purpose and effect of these new rules,” she said.
U.S. President Trump said the terror attacks 10 months later that killed 130 people at the Bataclan concert hall and on the streets of Paris could have been stopped if Parisians had been armed. The comments by Trump at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting were labeled “shameful” by former French President Francois Hollande.
The Swiss variant of the law “upholds Switzerland’s shooting tradition,” while improving “the traceability of arms ownership,” said Thomas Dayer, a spokesman for the Federal Police, which will oversee implementation of the new regulations.
The Swiss government supports the tougher EU rules, highlighting concessions that mean ex-soldiers can still get permits to own and use their semi-automatic rifles, which are already converted to eliminate rapid-fire shooting.
Gun-rights activists Protell said the new directive will make it more expensive and complicated to retain an army issue semi-automatic rifle, which is insulting for those who have served their country, according to General Secretary Robin Udry.
“It would mean that the day you leave the army, you’re no longer trusted with your SIG 550 and treated like a potential terrorist or criminal,” he said, referring to the semi-automatic assault rifle issued to Swiss army conscripts.
Protell, based in the capital Bern, is ready to gather the 50,000 signatures required to trigger a referendum should the EU proposal become law. The issue will be debated next month in Parliament. Udry points to a 50 percent increase in Protell’s membership to 12,500 over the past eight months as evidence of public concern.
“It’s a clear sign people don’t want their rights taken away and are ready to fight,” said Udry, a former chief of police training for the canton of Valais, who is also a major in the Swiss Army reserves. “In Switzerland, these kind of guns are all very well-controlled, so why should we now accept legislation from the EU when we don’t have this problem?”
David Zuberbuehler, a councillor in the Swiss People’s Party, the largest in the lower house of Parliament, dismissed the EU directive as “more bureaucracy for less security.”
In February 2014, the far-right party sponsored a referendum against mass immigration, which passed with a 50.3 percent majority. With that vote threatening economically vital Swiss-EU treaties, Parliament sidestepped implementing any substantive measures to block migration.
With guns an emotive issue in Switzerland, another crisis with Brussels looms. In 2011, Swiss voters rejected a plan requiring the registration of all firearms as well as a motion to change the nation’s tradition of letting citizens keep army-issue weapons at home.
While it’s commonplace to see off-duty conscripts passing through the country’s main train stations with SIG rifles strapped to their duffel bags, gun massacres in Switzerland are rare. The last mass shooting was in 2001 when a man armed with a Swiss Army SIG assault rifle killed 14 people in Zug’s parliament building. Two Swiss shootings in two months in 2013 also claimed seven lives.
Switzerland has at least one gun for every four people, but the country’s gun homicide rate is about a 15th of that in the U.S., according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey.
Should opinion polls show the gun activists gaining traction, then backers of the EU proposals are likely to highlight the risks of leaving Schengen, according to Rene Schwok, director of the Global Studies Institute at the University of Geneva. If Protell wins, the Swiss government is likely to activate a plan B, he said.
“The Federal Council and the parliaments will ultimately not automatically abandon Schengen just because of this vote,” said Schwok. “They will try to negotiate an arrangement with Brussels.”
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